Tag Archive for Kirn

Professor Kirn Remembered for Neurobiology Research, Gentle Demeanor

John Robert Kirn, professor of biology, died on Nov. 10 at the age of 67.

John Kirn

John Kirn

Kirn was born in Columbus, Ohio, and received his BA from the University of Denver, his MA from Bucknell University, and his PhD from Cornell University. Arriving at Wesleyan in 1994, he went on to teach courses on animal behavior, hormonal systems, and the neurobiology of learning and memory for the next 25 years. Kirn was a vital member of the biology department and a pillar of the neuroscience and behavior program (NS&B). He served as the director of graduate studies from 2005–2010, as the chair of the biology department from 2015–2017, and as the chair of the NS&B program for 12 consecutive years from 2001–2013, during a period of tremendous growth in the NS&B major.

Kirn’s research on song learning and song maintenance in birds explored questions of neuronal replacement and the ways the brain acquires and stores information. This is a critical area of neuroscience research, with important clinical applications that help us understand the potentially parallel processes that occur in humans during recovery from brain injury. John’s work was widely respected for opening new neurobiological paradigms and was often published in the most authoritative journals in the field, including The Journal of Neuroscience. He received numerous grants supporting his research from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, as well as a recent three-year grant from the Whitehall Foundation.

“John was an unusual combination: a highly accomplished scientist and lab head, and an exceptionally kind and gentle person,” said colleague Sonia Sultan, professor of biology.

Gloster Aaron, associate professor of biology, described John as having “a very gentle demeanor” and as “a kind and caring colleague and mentor.”

Ann Burke, chair and professor of biology, said Kirn was respected for his intellect and loved for his generous personality and wry sense of humor. “He trained over 17 graduate students in his lab, and influenced hundreds of undergraduates in his classes,” Burke said. “His colleagues and students are deeply saddened by his loss.”

Kirn is survived by his two children, Jake and Ella, and their mother Cynthia Seiwert.

A memorial event will be held on campus later this year. Read Kirn’s full obituary online here.

 

Grant Supports Kirn’s Research on Adult Neurogenesis

John Kirn

Professor John Kirn recently received a three-year $225,000 grant from the Whitehall Foundation to look at the activity patterns of vocal control neurons formed in adult zebra finches. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

#THISISWHY

It may not be the most beautiful, or the most complex, or the most well known, but the simple song of the zebra finch is helping Professor John Kirn learn more about how new information is acquired and old information preserved during adult neurogenesis.

5 Questions With . . . John Kirn on Songbird Neuroscience

John Kirn

John Kirn, professor of biology, professor and chair of the neuroscience and behavior program, in May published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience on neurogenesis in songbirds. He recently spoke about his research on WNPR public radio and in The Hartford Courant

Q: Professor Kirn, you study the neuroscience behind song learning and production in zebra finches. Please tell us about your research, and the surprising findings to come out of your most recent work.

A: I’m interested in the normal functions of adult neurogenesis—the continual addition and replacement of neurons. This happens to a limited extent in humans but is very widespread in the brains of birds. It is a widely held view that this process helps us learn, because young neurons might be more malleable than older ones. In some songbirds, like the canary, the highest numbers of new neurons are added annually when birds are learning new song. But neurons are also added when song does not change.

In the zebra finch too, neuron addition is highest when they are juveniles, learning their song. But song learning is over by adulthood and yet new neurons are still added. Why? We think that neurogenesis may also function to preserve pre-existing knowledge. Our most recent work, though still only correlational, supports this notion. If you deafen an adult zebra finch, song structure breaks down, as is also true with human speech. We recently showed that birds that preserved their songs the longest after deafening also had the highest number of neurons added to a brain region that appears to be critical for the maintenance of song structure.

Q: What are the implications of these findings?

A: They might indicate that adult neurogenesis serves more than one purpose. Depending on the brain region and type of cell produced, perhaps in some cases it promotes the acquisition of new information, while in other cases, it promotes stability of older information.

Kirn’s Songbird Neuroscience Research Featured on WNPR, in Hartford Courant

John Kirn

John Kirn, professor of biology, professor and chair of the neuroscience and behavior program, was interviewed on WNPR public radio on June 25 about his research on neurogenesis, or the formation of new neurons, in the brains of zebra finches.

“The birds that had managed to preserve their songs the longest had the most new neurons, which was completely counter to our prediction. It suggests that maybe, at least in some cases and in some brain regions, new neurons are being added in order to preserve what’s already been learned,” Kirn said in the interview, describing the findings of his latest research published in the Journal of Neuroscience in May.

Kirn’s research was also highlighted in a feature story in The Hartford Courant. According to the article:

Birds can create new brain cells through most of their brains, while the creation of new neurons, known as neurogenesis, can occur in only a few regions of a mammal’s brain. Better understanding of how neurogenesis happens in birds’ brains, Kirn said, could lead to medical breakthroughs for humans.

“If we can understand how they manage to do this on the molecular level, it might give us some insights that we can use,” [Kirn] said, adding that stem therapy is one area that could benefit. “There’s something special about the bird brain that might be important in how we can create therapies for human brain damage,” he said.

Kirn’s Neuron Research Published in Neuroscience Journals

John Kirn, professor of biology, chair and professor of neuroscience and behavior, is the co-author of three recent articles. They include:

“Adult neuron addition to the zebra finch song motor pathway correlates with the rate and extent of recovery from botox-induced paralysis of the vocal muscles,” published in the Journal of Neuroscience, 31(47): 16958-16968. Yi-Lo Yu ’03, MA ’04 co-authored this paper.

“Morphological plasticity in vocal motor neurons following song crystallization in the zebra finch,” published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, Accepted manuscript online on April 2, 2012. DOI: 10.1002/cne.23120. Biology major Kathryn McDonald Ph.D. ’09 co-authored this article.

And “Adult neurogenesis is associated with the maintenance of a stereotyped, learned motor behavior,” published in the Journal of Neuroscience, 32(20): 7052–7057.

NS&B Alumni Speak to Students, Faculty About Post-Wesleyan Life

Dan Austin '08 speaks to students and faculty on "Research opportunities before graduate/medical school: The national Institutes of Health IRTA Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship," during the second Neuroscience and Behavior Symposium Feb. 20 in Exley Science Center. Austin was one of five NS&B alumni who returned to campus to speak at the symposium. While a student, Austin received university honors, the CBIA/CURE Bioscience Fellowship; and the Hawk Prize in Chemistry.

Dan Austin '08 speaks to students and faculty on "Research opportunities before graduate/medical school: The National Institutes of Health IRTA Post-Baccalaureate Fellowship," during the second Neuroscience and Behavior Symposium Feb. 20 in Exley Science Center. Austin was one of five NS&B alumni who returned to campus to speak at the symposium. While a student, Austin received university honors, the CBIA/CURE Bioscience Fellowship; and the Hawk Prize in Chemistry. He currently is a pre-doctorial fellow at the National Institutes of Health.